Snoop To Conquer

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Tapping will be used to settle scores till netas agree to draw a line, says Shobhita Naithani

Illustration: Anand Naorem

UNABASHED DENIAL is impossible to argue with. Parliament may have been rocked by allegations that the Centre had tapped the phones of key politicians, but as a Delhi-based Congress leader says, “It was not authorised, it has not happened and it is not in the records of the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO, the technical intelligence gathering agency, which is claimed to have tapped the phones).” What next, then? “There may be a further investigation if an inquiry yields something,” the Congressman says.

Former Joint Director of the Intelligence Bureau, MK Dhar, finds the government’s claim hard to believe. “What interest does the NTRO have in tapping politicians’ phones? They must have been given targets.” The crisis here is that neither a government inquiry, nor an investigation will generate anything because there is no paper trail. And the technology is easy to erase — with just the click of a button.

Under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, the Centre and state governments have the power to intercept any message in case of a “public emergency” or “in the interest of public safety”. In this case it was neither. To regulate the random execution of power in this manner, the Supreme Court laid down guidelines more than 12 years ago. When the People’s Union for Civil Liberties approached the Supreme Court in 1997 on the basis of a report that the CBI was tapping politicians’ telephones, the apex court observed that illegal phone tapping was “a serious violation of individual privacy”. It ruled that orders for tapping must originate at the Home Secretary-level; reasons for tapping should be compelling enough; orders must be issued only when the required information cannot be collected by other means; they can be applied only for two months; and the records of the tapping need to be destroyed within this period. Dhar points out that many a time “political bosses order tapping without written permission. Any officer who disobeys is sent home”.

Blank fire The Opposition should have woken up to the possibility of misuse of the IT Act long ago
Blank fire The Opposition should have woken up to the possibility of misuse of the IT Act long ago

NO LESSONS were learnt by our Parliamentarians when the Information Technology Act, 2000, was amended in December 2008. The amendment empowered the government “to intercept, monitor or decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource”. No prior approval of certifying was required. Supreme Court advocates and cyber law experts like Pavan Duggal cried themselves hoarse, calling it draconian, because no safeguards had been put in place to prevent abuse. “The bill is bound to infringe on civil liberties like right to privacy or right to anonymous communication which is legal,” says Duggal.

But in an action-packed parliamentary session, the amendment passed smoothly with little debate. The same Opposition is today demanding a new law to be drafted. They are also insisting that a Joint Parliamentary Committee be set up to probe the allegations. Neither will help, till parties stop internal espionage. Till then the life of the common man will continue to remain under siege as investigating agencies rampantly snoop around and invade his privacy. •

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